Testimonials vs Scriptural Arguments

Testimonials vs Scriptural Arguments

Over at Scot McKnight’s blog, there is an article by Stan Gundry. In it, he makes some interesting statements

Arguments in which both sides launch aggressive offenses and structure fortress-like defenses can be unnecessarily adversarial. I am not suggesting that such arguments have no place, but let’s acknowledge that their value is vastly over-ratedStories cover the same territory, but they are testimonialsand it is hard to argue with someone’s testimony.

I take issue with his presuppositions regarding testimonials, especially when the “goal” of the testimonial is to change our understanding and processing of Scripture. Let me give an example. If you have a minute, go and read Genesis 16 and 17, if you don’t have time, here’s a recap of the story.

God has promised Abram that he will be a great nation. His wife, Sarai, is, up to this point, barren. Sarai says to Abram,

Behold now, the LORD hath restrained me from bearing: I pray thee, go in unto my maid; it may be that I may obtain children by her. And Abram hearkened to the voice of Sarai.

This is fairly interesting for a number of reasons, but the one that is most interesting to me is that Sarai is clear as to why she believes she has not given birth: The Lord hath restrained me from bearing. So, Abram goes into Hagar, and she conceives and Ishmael is born. Now, fast-forward thirteen years to the beginning of chapter 17. God comes to Abram again and makes the promise of a great nation, he changes his name to Abraham and he institutes circumcision. Then God says,

And God said unto Abraham, As for Sarai thy wife, thou shalt not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall her name be. And I will bless her, and give thee a son also of her: yea, I will bless her, and she shall be a mother of nations; kings of people shall be of her. Then Abraham fell upon his face, and laughed, and said in his heart, Shall a child be born unto him that is an hundred years old? and shall Sarah, that is ninety years old, bear? (Genesis 17:15-17)

And then Abraham says:

And Abraham said unto God, O that Ishmael might live before thee!

Thirteen years after he goes into Hagar, Abraham is still trying to sell Ishmael to God as the Son of Promise. God says, no way, but, I will bless him.

And as for Ishmael, I have heard thee: Behold, I have blessed him, and will make him fruitful, and will multiply him exceedingly; twelve princes shall he beget, and I will make him a great nation. But my covenant will I establish with Isaac, which Sarah shall bear unto thee at this set time in the next year.
(Genesis 17:20-21)

Now, we skip ahead to Genesis 25 and read this:

And these are the names of the sons of Ishmael, by their names, according to their generations: the firstborn of Ishmael, Nebajoth; and Kedar, and Adbeel, and Mibsam, And Mishma, and Dumah, and Massa, Hadar, and Tema, Jetur, Naphish, and Kedemah: These are the sons of Ishmael, and these are their names, by their towns, and by their castles; twelve princes according to their nations. And these are the years of the life of Ishmael, an hundred and thirty and seven years: and he gave up the ghost and died; and was gathered unto his people.
(Genesis 25:13-17)

We know a little more about Isaac. We know that he married Rebekah and that he had two sons, Jacob and Esau. We know that he became wealthy. We know his story in greater detail without having to look it up. But, here is my question; Ishmael had twelve sons, each a prince with castles and lands. If someone looked at the fruit of Abraham’s actions, his child with Hagar and his child with Sarah, which one would they conclude was more “successful”. Would they conclude that going into Hagar was such a bad thing after all? Could they even conclude that it was a good thing? Based on Ishmael’s life, would the modern church have told Abraham, go down into Egypt and purchase from the slave blocks one hundred Hagars and get them all with child and raise up an army of Ishmaels? I wonder.

This is just one of the problems with interpreting Scripture through the lens of personal experience. Last week, I read a piece by Bart Campolo with the following statement (this excerpt is from a letter someone had written Bart) :

When you came to visit my team, you told a story about how when you first started working in rough neighborhoods, you got to know a girl who was gang-raped as a nine-year-old and – after her Sunday School teacher told her God must have allowed it for a reason — rejected God forever. Because you believed God was indeed in control, and because you believed that girl’s lack of faith doomed her to eternal damnation, you decided that God must be a ‘cruel bastard.’ [Emphasis mine. the full article has been removed from the Youth Specialties site, but can be accessed via the Google cache here ]

When I read the article the first time, I remember thinking, rejected God forever?!? How does he know? And even if she never received Christ as her Savior, I reject the idea that it makes God a “cruel bastard” and I do think it shows the difficulty of our defining God based on our limited frame of reference.

I guess the closing thought is this: Hindsight isn’t 20/20. We like to think it is, but it’s just another perspective and full of it’s own pitfalls. In the end, it is Scripture and Scripture alone that instructs, corrects, reproves, and indoctrinates, and when we try to elevate our minds above it, we become the worst sort of fool. I should also say, that I’m not against testimony/personal experience and that I’m not saying it is worthless, quite the contrary. What I am saying is that we are never to use our perception as a lever to move Scripture. Instead, we should let Scripture bring clarity to our experience.

Language and The Inability to Communicate

Recently, in a comment on the article Deepening Spiritual Wonder at the excellent and constantly updated blog, Bittersweet Life, tim wrote (in part):

Unfortunately (lamentably, actually) the ability to articulate with power and lucidity is something that belongs to few; and for many a simple “wow” is all feeble lips can muster…

This got me to thinking as well. My son, Gavin, is in the middle of learning to speak, and my wife made the comment one day that it must be frustrating to not be able to communicate what you want to say. It lead to an interesting discussion and in the end, we decided it was a bit of a paradox. Gavin has a desire to speak, and there are moments where it is obvious that he wants to communicate something to us but cannot. But at other times, until we have taught him how to communicate something, or until he gets the notion that it can be communicated, he (seems to) show no visible interest or frustration in his inability. Clearly, we can’t see inside his mind, but if I switch to thinking about it from my point of view I can remember times in my life (some fairly recently) where I experienced feelings that at the time I did not feel I could adequately put into words. It’s interesting to me, because there were moments when I felt both at peace and frustrated with my inability. What I think I’m beginning to see is that there is not an end to the process we begin as children, of quantifying the world and our experiences in it, and that sometimes, our limited mental vocabulary limits our ability to be aware. As we are able to express more, we sense more, and as we sense, we come to terms with expressing it. I don’t think the two can be separated, and perhaps that’s one of the danger of language. By naming a thing, we sometimes believe that we have mastered it and can now isolate it.

I realize now, reading back through this, that I have illustrated my point quite well. My own level of articulation* in describing how I feel about feeling about something that I cannot quite say how I feel about (does that make any sense at all) is somewhere in the middle of this process, and basically, not ready for expression.

* Literally, to divide into distinct but cooperating parts

A Three Ghost Night

He is asleep when I find him. A tiny man in a giant bed, pillows tossed around the room. His face, normally full of life and color, is pale white, the skin of a dead man. It takes nothing to wake him, and when I do, his face flushes with momentary anger, and then he recognizes me.

“You look as if you’ve seen a ghost,” I say to him.

“I’ve prayed I would,” he says, “but none have come.”

He is not the first patient of mine to feel this way, and he will certainly not be the last, but the sound of desperation in his voice is strong, and I feel a moment’s pity. I stay for an hour and listen to his story, knowing it already before he begins, wishing that like a joke heard before, I can merely say the punchline and avoid the repetition.

“I’m so unhappy with myself,” he cries, “and there is nothing I can do. I awake every day to the same life, the same problems, the same failures, the same vices. I am the unchanged man, and I long for change! I wish for a night like Ebenezer’s. I wish for a three ghost night and the transformation it would bring.” It is hard to pay attention to everything he says. I have heard it all from him before.

Finally, he finishes speaking and I give him my advice. This too is nothing new, but he nods and pretends to listen. “You’ve been such a help,” he says, a tiny smile appearing on his tiny face. Afterwards, I gather my things and prepare to leave. I watch him as he turns upon the bed, preparing for sleep and then I leave without a word. There is nothing else for me to see here; I know his routine well: beside the bed sits a tumbler of water and a Bible; without thinking, he will drink the water in one gulp, and then read the Holy Scriptures in much the same way. Perhaps five minutes, perhaps less. Then he will close his eyes and sleep, dreaming desperate dreams and hoping for a touch of magic.

Piper, Driscoll, Contextualization, Postmodernism

I think I’m coming to hate the word “contextualization”. It’s not the idea behind it, it’s the thought that it is being held to the same level of importance as doctrine, and in some ways, as more important. At Desiring God 2006, Marc Driscoll said that we should have two hands, in the one, which is tightly clenched, we hold the unchangeable truths of God’s Word and in the other, which is open, we hold a contextualized, timely message. “And you’re anchored to the truth,” says Driscoll, “so you can be creative.” But what I get from this, is that the unchangeable truths have no unchangeable practical implications. What I pick up, is that we keep those truths held tightly in our hand, so that they are not able to get in the way of our “creative” ministry.

Even John Piper made the following statement shortly after Driscoll finished speaking and left the conference to catch a plane:

Let me tell you how I think and how I decide who I’m going to hang with. As I look across the broad spectrum of Evangelicalism and all the different styles, what concerns me is doctrine. And if Mark Driscoll holds those nine truths firmly in his left hand, then I don’t care what’s in his open hand.

He went on to say,

Now the problem is that some of us believe that what you have in your open hand may subtly undermine what you have in your closed hand. And so I would sit down with Mark and say things like, ‘Mark, you cannot be clever in the pulpit and be faithful to the gospel message.’ But what matters to me is doctrine, and I don’t care about form or style.

[quotes taken from Piper, Driscoll, and Contextualization]

And so, I say the hand analogy is bad, in fact, I say it’s fatal. We are to preach what God has given us. We are to dilligently seek his face, read his word. When contextualization occurs, I believe it is in the spirit of Proverbs 16:1 “The preparations of the heart in man, and the answer of the tongue, is from the LORD.”

There is one more thing that we should remember about contextualization and Postmodernism, and that is this: Jesus Christ lived in a Postmodern world, so did Paul. You don’t get much more cynical or pluralistic than the Roman Empire. You would be hard pressed to find a people more inured to metanarratives (or incredulous, with apologies to Jean-Francois Lyotard). And when you look at Paul and Christ, the major way they contextualized their message was in deciding whether to start with Genesis or Matthew.

Sodomy in the Church

Marriage is not about you. This life is not about you. Consider:

Through faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that things which are seen were not made of things which do appear. Hebews 11:3

Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God. Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; That he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish. So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself. For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church: For we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh. This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church. Nevertheless let every one of you in particular so love his wife even as himself; and the wife see that she reverence her husband. Ephesians 5:21-33

Marriage is about Christ and the church. It is a witness. It is a symbol. We do not need to ask ourselves why sodomy is so rampant in our culture. We need only look at the marriages in the churches of our nation. With every husband that refuses to lead, with every wife that lifts her head to rule, we have shown the world how we can place a skirt upon Jesus Christ. We have shown them that the words chosen to frame the worlds, were poor in their choosing. We have said to the world, “the sexes are identical” and they have responded with the homosexual movement, a movement whose very name means “the sexes are identical”. Should it come as a surprise? Our attitude toward sodomy begins in the home and in the church. Our attitude toward sodomy begins everyday. Because marriage is not about us. This life is not about us. It is all about God.